That’s the crux of Friends of the Falls Director Steve Faust’s River Greenway District proposal. Right now most facets of the Spokane River and the recreation associated with it suffer from some degree of active or benign neglect. Are we will to pony up to make this area world-class? This piece appears in the current issue, but I wanted to post it here too so folks could comment on the idea.

A MODEST PROPOSAL: A SPOKANE RIVER GREENWAY DISTRICT

By Steve Faust

PICTURE YOURSELF IN a boat on a river—a drift boat, on the Spokane River. As you round the bend, you realize the gate at your take-out spot is locked. A cyclist rolling down the trail stops to portage her bike around a fallen tree. You remember making the same portage a week ago. What’s happening here? Looking around, you realize you just crossed the border from one city to another. One city has a budget to manage facilities along the river—the other does not.

While this example is exaggerated for effect, it illustrates how we manage recreational facilities along the Spokane River. Everything that affects our recreational experience is managed independently by four or five entities that can choose to make different, even conflicting, decisions about planning, policies and resources allocated to their stretch of the river.
Now imagine a different way.

Imagine the Spokane River Greenway. Starting at the Idaho state line and running west through Riverside State Park, the Greenway offers a clean, safe and consistently managed network of paved trails, single-track dirt trails, river access, open space, and public facilities along the Spokane River. With connecting trails like the Fish Lake Trail and the Hangman Bluffs, the River Greenway is an essential element of regional non-motorized commuting.

Imagine a well-maintained, thoughtfully planned river corridor bustling with activity year round: hikers, trail runners, cyclists, skiers, birdwatchers, disc golfers, rock-climbers, fly-fishers, paddlers in all manner of craft, students on field trips to study local history, native culture, and the riparian environment.

Imagine the River Greenway as a foundation of sustainable economic growth. Imagine a time when Spokane is widely recognized as a unique urban environment with easy access to fantastic recreational opportunities, when a strong sense of place provides competitive advantage not merely in tourism, but in the global contest for knowledge workers, artists, thinkers, and entrepreneurs.

The Friends of the Falls have been imagining how our region can realize the full potential of the public assets we enjoy along the Spokane River. We see challenges ahead. We think it’s time to discuss forming a new metropolitan parks district, focused on management of the River Greenway, as a way to meet those challenges.

One challenge concerns capital projects. If implemented over the near term, plans and projects like the Great Gorge Plan, the County Trails Plan, the Fish Lake Trail, the Beacon Hill trails, and the plan to fill gaps in the Centennial Trail would go far toward fulfilling the potential of the River Greenway. Yet the Centennial Trail, a crown jewel by any standard, remains incomplete despite thirty years of effort from hundreds of dedicated, talented volunteers. At this rate, it may take thirty more years to reap the promise of a fully realized River Greenway.

Another challenge concerns management. Today our trails, access points, and lands along the river are managed by three cities, one county, and the Washington State Parks. While we respect and appreciate their efforts, our existing park departments have limited budgets and serve many competing priorities. If a trail or access point is not clean or safe in one area, it impacts all users and devalues the investment made by all other players. With the current, fragmented approach to management, the emphasis on maintenance and safety along the river corridor will inevitably differ among jurisdictions and the full value of our regional investment will not be realized.

As we build more amenities along the river, the challenge of keeping them clean and safe will only grow. There is substantial deferred maintenance on the Centennial Trail, now twenty years old. Safety issues exist along all parts of the river corridor. If the River Greenway is not well and consistently managed, it will not fulfill its potential.

The Spokane River Greenway is one large regional, park. It makes sense to establish a single, regional authority to manage it. Under laws already on the books, the voters can establish a metropolitan parks district, over and across existing jurisdictional lines, with a mission focused on management of the Spokane River Greenway. Such a metropolitan parks district could deliver:

• A sustainable budget dedicated to “clean and safe” services of our river and trails network, provided in a consistent fashion.
• Bonding capacity to accelerate capital improvements.
• Consistent, long term planning for the river corridor.

Establishing a “Spokane River Greenway Authority” to provide services along the river corridor would also free existing parks budgets to provide more traditional facilities and services to neighborhoods.

We recognize there are many difficult questions about the lands and facilities to be included under a Spokane River Greenway Authority, the scope of services, who would deliver them, and at what cost. Our intent is to start a conversation among regional stakeholders to tackle these questions.
To that end, we have requested an appropriation from the State of Washington to conduct a feasibility study and facilitate dialogue. Our request is part of Greater Spokane Incorporated’s state legislative agenda for 2009. If you agree this is a discussion worth having, please contact your Washington state legislators and encourage them to support our request.

Much of the river’s value comes from our experience of it—whether in the stream or on the shoreline. Though we regulate our river’s water as a system, we have so far failed to manage the lands and features abutting it in similar fashion. Like the river itself, our experience of the river does not stop at the city line. By not addressing these challenges as a region, we’re missing a fabulous opportunity. It’s time to consider a new approach. //

Steve Faust is executive director of the Friends of the Falls Association – www.friendsofthefalls.org.